|INSECURE ARROGANCE VS. CONFIDENT HUMILITY
Terry D. Cooper
I AM REVEALED
Dec 17 2011
Insecure arrogance? Confident humility? Aren't those word combinations completely incompatible? Not according to a
friend of mine who is fond of saying, "I'm an egomaniac with an inferiority complex." Actually, I'd like to suggest that
there may be far more truth in this statement than we might assume. In this chapter, I will explore the relationship
between insecurity, arrogance and judgmentalism. Conversely, I will examine the relationship between humility and
confidence, arguing that these terms are quite compatible.
Judgmentalism often comes across as cocksure of itself. When I become judgmental, grandiosity takes over my thinking
and I forget Henri Nouwen's words: "The mystery of one man is too immense and too profound to be explained by
another man." I somehow claim a complete vision that allows me a total assessment of another person. This mentality
is profoundly arrogant and full of itself. Who am I to think that I have the mental equipment to completely evaluate
another human being? How did I manage to step outside of my own mental filters and life experience to find a place of
Godlike objectivity from which to size up an entire person?
One of the problems with arrogant thinking is that it no longer sees any need for empathy. It already knows the whole
truth, so why bother with deeply hearing another perspective? Perhaps one of the central features of judgmental
thinking is that it always lacks empathy. Empathy, as psychologist Carl Rogers points out so well, is that capacity to
enter another's viewpoint and understand life from that angle. It is primarily a cognitive exercise. While it involves
understanding someone's feelings, it is essentially a mental process of deep, nonjudgmental listening in which we risk
taking on another person's perspective. We may walk away from the conversation with far less certainty than we had
before. Whatever the results, however, we will feel the fulfillment of having respected the person in spite of his or her
Another arrogant aspect of judgmentalism is that it understands only its own viewpoint. In a sense, a judgmental
thinking is intoxicated with its own perspective. When I am the most judgmental, I am not really able to think freely. It is
not so much that I have rigid thoughts; instead, rigid thoughts seem to have me! I become a prisoner of my own
thinking, unable to get outside, underneath or beyond it enough to see with comprehension. I am unreachable, drunk
on the wine of my own certainty.
This inability to take on other perspectives creates enormous limits in our relationships with others. Most of us have
had the experience of trying to talk with a person who will not even attempt to see our angle on things. This, of course,
can be enormously frustrating. The annoyance is not so much that another person disagrees with us but rather, that
they won't even hear us in the first place. Our outlook is simply not given a chance. They believe that recognizing any
legitimacy to our viewpoint automatically means giving up their own. Consequently, no value is seen in anything we are
trying to say.
Perspective-taking may well be one of the most important relationship skills we can ever develop. When we are
completely absorbed by our own vision of things, we obviously cannot benefit from anybody else's angle. Perspective-
taking moves us away from the arrogance of thinking we have a monopoly on reality.
But it is now time to ask a central question concerning the relationship between arrogance and judgmentalism: Does
arrogance represent a primary problem? Are self-exaltation and conceit the most basic underlying factors contributing
to judgmentalism? It certainly appears that way at times, but is there something deeper going on? More specifically,
what is the relationship between arrogance and insecurity?
THE CONTROVERSIAL ISSUE OF SELF-ESTEEM
In a previous book, Sin, Pride & Self-Acceptance, I examined two opposing perspectives concerning the issue of self-
esteem. One perspective, rooted in Augustine's conviction that pride is the root problem of the human condition,
argues that human beings have an inclination to overvalue, rather than undervalue, themselves. In other words, we
tend to inflate ourselves. We often believe that we are better than we are. In fact, many social psychologists such as
David Myers describe this tendency as a self-serving bias. In fact, there is a very impressive body of research that
suggests that human beings credit themselves when they do well and blame others when they fail. Self-evaluations are
highly skewed in a favorable light. Students believe that if they get As in a class, they have earned them, but if their
grades are poor, either the test or the professor was not fair. In turn, professors tend to overrate their own
performances, with large percentages believing that they are among the best academics on campus. In one study, 94
percent of college faculty saw themselves as better than the average colleague. Myers believes that these studies in
social psychology reaffirm the old Augustinian position that we think too much, rather than too little, of ourselves. A self-
serving, self-justifying tendency clouds our reason. As Myers puts it, "Although it is popularly believed that most people
suffer from the 'I'm not OK-You're OK' syndrome, research indicates that William Saroyan was much closer to the truth:
'Every man is a good man in a bad world - as he himself knows.'" For Myers, a more accurate diagnosis of the human
condition is that we suffer from a superiority complex rather than an inferiority one:
and high self-disparagement. We are, to be sure, strongly motivated to maintain and enhance our self-esteem
and we will welcome the message which helps us do that. But most of us are not groveling about with feelings
that everyone else is better than we are. Preachers who deliver ego-boosting pep talks to audiences who are
supposedly plagued with miserable self-images are preaching to a problem that seldom exists.
office. But therapists then frequently overgeneralize this problem and believe it is descriptive of most people. In fact,
these therapists have led a pop-psychology movement, which has suggested that low self-esteem is the primary
problem of the human condition. For Myers, this is both bad science and a highly unfortunate message, which leads
our culture to think that we undervalue, rather than overvalue, ourselves. This highly limited number of patients with low
self-esteem hardly describes the general population.
So Myers wants to utilize this social psychology research to confirm the older Augustinian premise that pride is the
primary sin. Our natural inclination is to be too favorable in our self-estimation, to think that we are better than we are.
If this is the bottom line, then we should take at face value the arrogance involved in judgmental thinking. People really
do see themselves in this exalted way.
But the question is whether the research of social psychologist tells the story about self-esteem. Many clinical
psychologists, psychotherapists and psychoanalysts believe that it does not. The problem, they argue, is with the
nature of the social psychology research. These findings come largely from questionnaires and interviews that only
deal with the surface of what people think about themselves. For many therapists, these surface self-affirmations do
not reveal what may be occurring beneath this flattering self-report. In other words, saying positive things about oneself
to an interviewer and having a deeply rooted high self-regard may be two different things. Often people tell us what
they think they should say or how they'd like to feel about themselves. But all of this, according to many clinical
psychologists, can be a compensation for underlying feelings that are not flattering at all. And why do these clinicians
frequently say this? Because in working with people in psychotherapy, they frequently have the opportunity to get
behind these defenses and see that arrogance is often a cover for deep insecurity. Beneath the exalted self is a highly
vulnerable, shaky and insecure self. So while social psychologists are doing surface research with many,
psychotherapists are doing much deeper research with a few. So they trust their own findings and not the results of
The key issue here is the significance of the unconscious. For many psychotherapists and all psychoanalysts, the
unconscious realm is always working behind the scenes. There is probably a history of narcissistic injury and
woundedness beneath what appears to be conceit. Under most bragging is unconscious self-doubt, and under most
displays of superiority is a nagging sense of inadequacy. A psychoanalyst would say to a social psychologist, "Of
course, out of their defensiveness and compensatory behavior, research subjects are going to tell you that they like
themselves. But this does not mean they really do."
This controversy has to do with different research methods and fundamentally different views of the psyche. If the
"pride is primary" group claims Augustinian theology roots, perhaps the "low self-esteem" group could claim theological
roots in Irenaeus, who saw the human dilemma more in terms of insecurity and immaturity than arrogance and pride.
Evangelicals, as general rule, have been much more influenced by the Augustinian argument. Further, at least in my
mind, evangelicals have produced better academic and research psychologists than they have psychotherapists. Put
another way, they haven't paid a lot of attention to the unconscious. In fact, many evangelical therapy styles have
focused on conscious reason as the backbone of mental health. Cognitive therapy is popular. Many mainline
denominations, on the other hand, have been much more influenced by depth psychology. Historically, the American
Association of Pastoral Counselors, a dominantly mainline group, has had a long courtship with psychoanalysis.
Unfortunately, there has not been much ecumenical dialogue between mainliners and evangelicals. Evangelicals have
produced some excellent scholars, particularly in the psychology and theology dialogue, as well as in the dialogue
between philosophy of science and psychology. Some mainliners have also offered interesting theological evaluations
of various forms of psychotherapy. Roman Catholics have a rich tradition of connecting spiritual development to the
process of psychotherapy. It is past time for these three groups to listen more attentively to each other.
But in the meantime, what are we to make of this pride versus low self-esteem debate and its relevance for our topic of
judgmentalism? I believe that we can be enormously helped with this issue when we look at the thought of Karen
Horney, who consistently argued that pride and self-contempt are actually two sides of the same coin. While interested
readers may want to check my development of this theme in Sin, Pride & Self-Acceptance, I will not repeat the argument
here. However, I do wish to mention some of Horney's main points.
Horney readily accepts the psychoanalytic point that a great deal of insecurity and even self-contempt often underlie
our grandiose exhibitionism. In fact, she often points out that the word "arrogance" comes from the word arrogate,
which has to do with attributing something to ourselves that we really do not possess. Thus, she rather brilliantly
develops the notion that healthy self-esteem and neurotic pride (arrogance) are very different. Beneath arrogance is a
fragile self, a shaky self, which covers its fragility with grandiose claims and neurotic pride. Yet Horney offers an
additional insight. Just as insecurity lies behind self-inflation, so self-inflation lies behind what appears to be low self-
In other words, we are often extremely down on ourselves because an unconscious pride system tells us that we ought
to match our idealized self. If I am perpetually self-berating, I may need to look at the implicit (and arrogant!)
assumptions with which I operate. Perhaps I expect to be above the traffic of ordinary human problems, immune from
the struggles that others experience. While it sounds nearly brutal to say this, people with chronic low self-esteem may
be working with an implicit pride system that demands that they be better than everyone else. This is why Horney
frequently argues that pride and self-contempt are two sides of the same coin. While we are quick to notice the
insecurity beneath neurotic pride, we are not so quick to notice the neurotic pride beneath self-contempt. But for
Horney, both are present.
Because the connection between arrogance and judgmentalism is so crucial, I list some of the key differences between
false pride and genuine self-confidence in table 3. (Many of these points are derived from Horney's work.)
GRANDIOSITY, SHAME AND NARCISSISM
Over the past several decades, the topic of narcissism has moved from an individual concern to a larger-scale cultural
critique of American society. While Christopher Lasch's book The Culture of Narcissism probably led the pack in this
indictment, other social critics also made important contributions. Narcissism has been understood as a tendency to be
self-absorbed, self-inflated and in constant need of adoration and praise. It's built on a framework that says, "It's all
about me." It appears self-indulgent, selfish and utterly preoccupied with its own needs. Narcissists are generally
incapable of caring about others because all their attention is turned inward. They don't want relationships, they want
mirrors; they don't want give-and-take connection, they want an audience. Narcissists feel entitled to special privilege,
and they often feel outraged if these narcissistic needs are not met. They appear to have almost no remorse about
anything because they are too wonderful to have faults. They also do not have much gratitude, because after all, they
are entitled to what they want. Sincere thanks and genuine apologies don't flow from their mouths. Also narcissists
frequently display a vicious envy toward others who accomplish more than they do. In short, narcissism is portrayed as
a psychologically ugly condition.
This highly negative view of narcissism has also been part of psychoanalytic history. Freud himself, beginning in 1914,
argued that adult narcissists could not be treated with psychoanalysis. Freud believed that each of us is born in a state
of "primary narcissism," in which the first object of our libido is ourselves. Babies naturally see themselves as the
center of the universe. This egocentricity is perfectly natural. Eventually, however, during the course of healthy
development, children turn their attention toward others. For Freud, because we only have a limited amount of libido
energy, if we love ourselves, there is normally nothing left for others. If we persist in this self-preoccupation as we grow
older, it is called "secondary narcissism." Because psychoanalysis focuses on previous relationships in one's life, and
narcissists are only capable of a relationship with themselves, they are not candidates for analysis. They have nothing
to "transfer" onto the analyst from previous relationships , so they are not analyzable - and such transference is the
means by which analysis is conducted. Thus, even within the early psychoanalytic tradition there has often been a
rather condemning attitude of the narcissistic condition.
Again, narcissists appear to have excessive self-regard and to view themselves as perfect specimens. Thus, narcissism
and judgmentalism toward others have often been connected. While narcissists need others too much to alienate them
completely, they nevertheless often come across in a very self-righteous and condemning manner. It is always
someone else's fault. After all, how could it possibly be them?
I would like to suggest that the issue of narcissism provides us with an excellent opportunity to see the two-edged sword
of judgmentalism. On the one hand, narcissism and arrogant judgmentalism are often teamed up together. Narcissists
can be demanding, self-exonerating and highly condemning of other people. Point granted. Yet I would also like to
suggest that many of us have become enormously judgmental of narcissists. In other words, we've written them off as
hopelessly self-consumed, indulgent, unethical and without redemption. Most descriptions of narcissism end with the
sentiment, "yuck!" In other words, narcissists have sometimes become the psychological lepers of our day, the ones for
whom we have no compassion. When the word narcissist is used to describe someone, that usually means the person
is hopeless, period.
What I'm suggesting is that it is easy for us to moralize about narcissism in such a way that we no longer see the person
beneath the condition. Pastoral counselor Donald Capps argues that theologians have, all too easily, jumped on the
bandwagon of condemning narcissistic sin without adequately understanding the nature and dynamics of narcissism.
Let me state this another way: As long as we see narcissism as "nothing but arrogance," we will be enormously tempted
to treat the narcissist with contempt and misunderstand the deeper reality of his or her condition. Whether we use
religious or psychological labels to condemn someone is not important; it's still condemnation. Our condemnation of the
narcissist will not address the deeper wounding beneath all the posturing and exhibitionism. Stated another way, what
narcissists desperately need is the internalization of grace, a deep sense of acceptance, which can free them from their
own painful self-preoccupations.
While there is a strong tendency within Christian thought to understand arrogance as the central and primary sin, there
are other resources that can help us see beneath this self-flattery. Kierkegaard, for one, understood that it is
impossible to be a human being without feeling a great deal of anxiety. This anxiety concerns our future, the
implications of the choices we make, our own limitations and, ultimately, our death. It is impossible to escape this
disorienting anxiety. No amount of medication or psychotherapy can eliminate it. While narcissism may appear to defy
this finitude and live from some exalted plane, the reality is that anxiety, and therefore insecurity, persists. The
narcissist may be quite good at hiding this underlying insecurity, but this does not mean it has disappeared.
In fact, the narcissist's self-obsession is a clue that something is unsettled within. This anxiety, as Kierkegaard argued
so well, is not itself sin, but it is the precondition of sin. We can accept our finitude and place our trust in our Creator, or
we can frantically try to resolve our insecure plight on the basis of our own devices. Yet like a person in quicksand, the
more we try to conquer this basic anxiety, the more we sink into it. By not accepting our anxiety, we place ourselves at
the center of our lives and our own ego becomes God: we must master our own fate and control our own destiny. The
problem, of course, is that we do not have the ability to wrestle and conquer these ultimate concerns. We may pretend
that we do (and I would argue that narcissism is always pretentious, not based on solid self-esteem or solid confidence;
it is false confidence that has stretched beyond its actual potential), but we actually don't.
This same point can also be seen in the brilliant analysis of the human condition offered by Reinhold Neibuhr.
Borrowing heavily from Kierkegaard, Niebuhr also discusses the relationship between anxiety and sin. Niebuhr is
known primarily for a rather blistering analysis of the sin of pride and self-exaltation. Niebuhr wrote in a historical period
rife with egomaniacal pride and arrogant dictatorship. Yet Niebuhr never lost awareness of the underbelly of this pride.
He knew quite well that this pride emerges from an underlying anxiety, ontological insecurity and distrust in God. He
hammered away at pride because it was so destructive. Yet Niebuhr's view of pride involved more than a boisterous,
loud display of self-mastery. For Niebuhr, pride emerges when people place the solution of their lives in their own
hands, rather than trusting in God. At times, this pride may not even look like pride. It can take many forms, like the
self-castigation because of high personal expectations that I described earlier. While feminist critics of Niebuhr have
been right to point out that the sin of excessive self-assertion may be more of a male than a female form of sin, Niebuhr
nevertheless understood that pride is closely connected to insecurity and anxiety.
Again, by linking the strange and paradoxical words "insecure arrogance," I am pointing toward not just the obvious
arrogance, but to the insecurity that propels that arrogance. To put it another way, I am suggesting that grandiosity
and shame usually travel together. In other words, the narcissist often moves from feelings of inadequacy, emptiness,
incompleteness and even inferiority on the one hand, to compensatory feelings of self-righteousness, pride, contempt
for others, vanity and superiority on the other hand. These two poles exist within the narcissist. The point to recognize
here is that the grandiose self is also the highly fragile self.
FROM FREUD TO KOHUT
Heinz Kohut, considered by many the most pioneering psychoanalyst since Freud himself, spent most of his adult life
exploring narcissism. Unlike Freud, Kohut refused to give up on the narcissist and sought to understand the underlying
structure of this self-disorder. While Kohut had a reputation for knowing Freudian theory inside out, at least when it
came to narcissism Kohut did not think Freud looked deeply enough.
For Kohut, the classical Freudian approach to narcissism, which sees narcissism as essentially a spoiled condition of
entitlement and grandiosity, is ineffective. Kohut believes that the focus on the person's grandiosity is far less
significant than a focus on the underlying vulnerability. Kohut does not deny that both are present; he simply believes
vulnerability must be addressed first. This grandiosity reveals the presence of earlier narcissistic injury. In other words,
the person is somewhat fixated in an earlier developmental period, in which insufficient acknowledgment, affirmation and
attention dominated. The narcissistic tendency reveals a craving that has not been met. The narcissist lacks what
every child needs: the chance to be exhibitionistic and to have parents mirror back to us who we are. Narcissist's
excitements, perceptions and disappoints were not reflected back to them. Consequently, narcissists attempt to get that
mirroring from everyone around them.
In fact, the narcissist's experience is often considered unreal unless someone else is watching. In healthy development,
children receive this attention, availability and emotional soothing from parents and are therefore later able to soothe
themselves. The resources of the parent are digested so that they become the resources of the child. Kohut
frequently calls this "transmuting internalizations." In unhealthy development, the grandiose self of childhood never gets
to be on stage and perform. And this hunger for mirroring does not go away. It appears in adulthood, often with the
expectation that adult relationships are going to meet the needs of a narcissistic child. David Augsburger describes this
process very well.
understanding, the hungry self develops voracious narcissistic needs. When the rejection is extreme, the
compensation for it by the empty self is also extreme. The unfulfilled needs leave gaps in the formation of the
self, missing pieces in the self-structure.
For Kohut, there needs to be a gleam in the sparkling eyes of parents as they emphatically respond to the age-
appropriate exhibitionism of their children. Put simply, parents need to enjoy watching their children perform and show
off. If the self is to grow and develop, this early period of display needs to be mirrored. If this is done, a child will not
stay stuck there. Inevitably, parents will fail at empathy, but this gradual empathic failure will not be perceived as
catastrophic. Instead, it will provide the optimal frustration by which a child can become more realistic. Children give up
the need to be the center of the universe after they have had the opportunity to be the center of the universe.
Parents also need to be available for children to idealize. When children idealize a parent, they can then feel strong as
a result of this identification with that parent. Children need to feel a part of something greater than themselves. By
virtue of these connections, children can feel more solid and secure. Kohut believes that it is very important for parents
to accept this idealization. Children gain strength from their parents' strength. The idealization will be grandiose at first,
but if allowed, it will be later channeled into a more realistic image. Again, part of the strengthening of the self depends
on this connection with a larger, stronger self. Put simply, children need to borrow parents' strength on the way to
developing their own robust selves. Eventually parents' fallibility will be realized, but for the time, they need to be
Both the need for mirroring and the need to idealize are part of the child's grandiosity. If development is healthy, this
grandiosity is transformed into healthy adult ambitions and motivations. The previously idealized parent becomes an
inner resource of guidance and values. Augsburger describes what happens when this does not go well:
idealized persons, its pretensions to entitlements, its inflated ideas of its own importance, abilities, and power,
begins to come apart. When others do not respond with the expected mirroring, approval, and admiration for the
"boundless exhibitionism of the grandiose self" then shame results...Narcissism - the self over-concerned with
itself - is the self's attempt to substitute self-indulgent self-care for the appropriate care by a significant other
which is woefully inadequate. The self-centered behavior of the narcissist arises from too little self-esteem and
self-valuation, not from too much. It is the impoverished self that hungrily grasps for attention and affirmation (no
matter how smoothly presented or artfully expressed).
Augsberger's comment is loaded with Kohutian insight. The narcissistic self tries in vain to substitute excessive
attention and flattery for what was painfully lacking developmentally. But this attempt to make up for the earlier
deprivation is doomed to failure. While adult narcissists may occasionally find people who are willing to sacrifice their
lives to meet others' narcissistic needs, most adults run out of patience very fast. Narcissists, in their ongoing craving
for attention, do not even "see" another person in the room. Others are necessarily devalued as they over-value
themselves. Other people are perceived as narcissistic supplies rather than as people in their own right. They are
instruments of attention, an audience whose job is to watch them instead of having a life of their own. There is no
reciprocity or mutuality in such a relationship.
So to repeat, the parents will gradually and inevitably fail the child's narcissistic needs. This is a part of healthy
development. Yet this failure should not be abrupt and disruptive for the child. Kohut often called this gradual
withdrawal of narcissistic resources "optimal frustration." This is important because (a) children learn that all of their
narcissistic needs cannot be met, and (b) they can learn to be self-soothing without having to always depend on other
people to be there. When adults do not have this self-soothing capacity, they express an excessive dependency on
others for mirroring and affirmation. This dependency is excessive because they have never developed the resources
to take care of themselves. Nothing is real until they "show" someone. This audience-addiction creates enormous
pressure for outsiders to be there for the narcissist. The narcissist feels entitled to constant attention, yet this
entitlement is fueled by desperation. Without a mirror, they don't have a self. And they don't have the strength to hold
up their own mirror.
In working with adult narcissists, Kohut found that empathy, more than confrontational interpretation, is more beneficial.
In other words, Kohut allowed the analytic process to replay earlier needs for mirroring and idealization. The focus is on
the adult's injurious early psychological environment, rather than on destructive drives that threaten life. This nurturing,
mirroring experience addresses the narcissistic injuries that keep patients from moving forward. As Augsburger said,
"The goal of empathy is not to remove the other person's problems, but to go beneath them and strengthen the person,
to support the growth of a more functional self, to facilitate the movement toward maturation. It is not simply a love cure,
but is caring understanding that offers the insight that heals, given in the empathy that cures."
Kohut found that when this empathic immersion is offered, a more robust and realistic sense of self emerges in the
narcissist. The analyst, in a sense, does exactly what a healthy parent would have done - namely, provide empathic
mirroring and the capacity for idealization. Gradually, the patient realizes that the analyst is not a perfect listener, not
omniscient and not always necessary. The patient internalizes some of what the analyst has offered. Initially rebuking
patients' grandiosity or challenging their sense of entitlement would have only driven them more deeply into their
defenses. It would have in fact promoted narcissistic rage, which is always connected to this deep woundedness.
For Kohut, everyone struggles with narcissism to one degree or another. It is not an us versus them problem. Early
narcissistic injuries are primary contributors to most psychological struggles. For instance, Kohut believes that
problems with sex and aggression, the two Freudian master motives, are better explained as "disintegrative
byproducts." Injuries to the self are deeper than sexual and aggressive conflicts. There is a close connection between
the experiences of shame and rage. Rather than viewing destructive aggression as part of our biological drives, Kohut
sees this aggression as a reaction to narcissistic injury. The same is true of the sex drive. Sexual promiscuity is a
secondary problem; the deeper issue revolves around a wounded self looking for narcissistic supplies.
It is easy to misunderstand Kohut at this point and think he doesn't offer interpretations to the patient at all. This is not
true. But for Kohut, interpretation is an outgrowth of empathy, not a detached, aloof activity made by an emotionally
distant analyst. Kohut wants "experience-near" interpretations. In other words, immersing himself in the client's world is
a primary method of data collection. In this sense, an empathic approach is a scientific approach and not simply a warm
and fuzzy way to make the patient feel good. Empathy provides analysts with an understanding that they would
normally not have. This vicarious introspection is the appropriate methodology for developing an understanding of the
Let's expand this point to a general statement. Most of us are not impressed with a confrontation of our behavior by
someone who hasn't taken the time to first understand our struggles. Why should we listen to someone who doesn't
really know us and has not attempted to grasp our situation? I can point out people's self-centeredness all day long,
and it will probably do little good. However, if I listen to them and talk about how their self-preoccupations may be
growing out of their own repressed fears and insecurities, they may listen. Even if I am absolutely right about their
external self-centered behavior, I have not helped them solve their problem. I need to look deeper. It's easy to moralize
from a distance, to preach at rather than speak to someone. Telling people that they are self-centered narcissists will
probably only drive them deeper into narcissistic rage.
Again, the more general point is that our prophetic pronouncements need to have been preceded with a caring
disposition. I submit that Jesus' challenging critiques of some people would have meant very little if he didn't already
have a solid reputation as a caregiver, one capable of showing mercy, kindness and love. If Jesus had simply been a
wandering preacher who took every occasion to "tell people the way it is," and to confront their pretentiousness, he
would not have inspired his followers to a life of service and care for others. It is easy to tell people off. It makes some
feel very righteous, powerful and in control. Yet the intensity of our words, when not matched by the gentleness of our
spirit, means almost nothing.
If we are going to act in loving ways toward those who seem quite arrogant and full of themselves, it may be helpful to
remember Kohut's description of the injured self beneath all the posturing. If we can listen for the anxious person
beneath the conceit, we may be able to respond in more caring ways to such individuals. It certainly won't be easy!
Many have developed layers upon layers of defensive pride.
And sometimes, quite frankly, they may need to hear the "law" before grace means much to them. Yet hammering away
at the grandiosity, self-elevation and apparent arrogance will probably just drive the person deeper into their denial and
false sense of pride. Loving arrogant people is an enormous challenge and one that regularly requires the assistance
of God's grace.
The word humility has acquired some unfortunate connotations. As I speak of humility, I am not talking about a self-
derogatory attitude, a sense of inferiority or a tendency to be down on oneself. Much of these behaviors, in my opinion,
are outward displays to make people think that we're humble and have nothing to do with actually being humble. Low
self-esteem has been confused with humility for far too long.
Humility, instead, comes from a deeper recognition of my limitations, faults and internal struggles, but not at the expense
of recognizing my gifts, abilities and positive qualities. Humility is a joyful embrace of my humanity - no more, and no
less. Humility certainly doesn't mean that I'm the best, but it also takes no glory in the idea that I am the worst. In fact,
when I start claiming to be the very worst person, I may well be experiencing an inverted form of pride. In other words, I
may consider myself the champion of the dark side, the person for whom God's love had to work overtime in order to
offer me grace. The more I speak openly with other people, however, the more I realize that I have a rather garden-
variety dark side. I begin to realize that we are all a mixture of good and bad elements. I am probably no harder or no
easier to love than the next guy. I'm on a journey that has been opened by the grace of God. It is this acceptance,
affirmation and love, so often mediated to me by other people, that provides the foundation of my self-confidence. The
cultivation of God-given gifts and potentially sometimes spills over into my own egocentricity. At other times, I may be
entirely too down on myself, which itself can be based on a kind of arrogance that I should be much better than others
and that I am surprised that I struggle as much as others do. When I have humility, I live freely with a deep confidence
that I am loved and that all will be okay. When my humility fades, I think it's all about my performance, a performance
that will determine my worth and acceptability.
Genuine humility and self-confidence are friends, not enemies. It is actually arrogance that cannot be linked with self-
confidence. These two words are inconsistent. Arrogance, as I have explained it, is connected to a false self that
makes claims it has no right to make. Self-confidence, on the other hand, emerges from a deep knowledge of our
strengths and weaknesses. Self-confidence understands that we are invited into an exciting world of using our
potentials to advance human dignity, help each other and promote a more loving world. Humility is in touch with its
Source. It doesn't pretend that it has achieved, all on its own, a profound sense of self-acceptance and self-
confidence. Instead, humility knows that we are able to accept ourselves because we have been accepted. We need
not flex our psychological muscles and brag about how we have completely accepted ourselves; instead, we can smile
at a God who alone is able to accept us unconditionally.
A confident humility is also able to acknowledge, appreciate and affirm the gifts and achievements of others. While
insecure arrogance is threatened and deeply envious of the abilities of others, humility can enjoy these abilities as the
gifts of a fellow traveler. Confident humility does not need to tear apart, criticize or demean the talents of others. Put
simply, it is not afraid to compliment others. Insecure arrogance, however, is very stingy with affirmations and only
offers them begrudgingly. When I am insecurely arrogant, I see the abilities of others as an attack on my own abilities.
In other words, I personalize the achievements of others by saying that their accomplishments are a commentary on my
own inadequacy. Rather than focusing on their accomplishments, I'm only reminded of my deficiencies, I can feel better
about myself. Socrates rather famously called envy the daughter of pride, but it is a shallow and shaky pride that feels
such intense envy. It is driven by a need to take others down, a rage over not being at center stage, an underlying
feeling of inferiority. Envy devalues others in its self-obsessed march to be the best.
Confident humility regularly affirms and values others without a fear that this affirmation will dredge up its own sense of
inadequacy. Again, it is sometimes very sad to see how utterly difficult it is for some people to simply compliment
another person. I have been astounded by times in which I've seen colleagues provide excellent performances only to
receive no positive comments at all from their peers. It is almost as if it is painful for others to affirm them. Confident
humility has no problem applauding the abilities of others. It recognizes the uniqueness of everyone and feels no
vicious competitive striving. While it does not engage in phony or false affirmations, it regularly lets others know that
they are appreciated.
And finally, confident humility is not based on a get-it-quick-and-easy guide to feeling wonderful. I am in complete
agreement with Alan McGinnis when he writes:
many motivational speakers. They tell us that we are wonderful, that our possibilities are limitless, and that if we
will simply believe in ourselves we can accomplish anything. We are not wonderful in every way, we do not
operate without certain limitations, and merely believing ourselves omnipotent will not make ourselves so.
Most of these quick self-esteem programs are about as successful as the latest diet. They make all sorts of promises
they cannot possibly deliver.
Yet within the Christian tradition there are powerful resources for supporting a healthy self-concept. The incomparable
uniqueness of every person, the unconditional love of God, the belief that our individual lives can have personal
meaning and the realization that we can make a contribution toward a better world are all excellent reasons to value
ourselves. But the transforming element in our ability to respect ourselves is the capacity to give and receive love.
Paul's words are an important daily reminder.
And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to
remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my
body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing. (I Corinthians 13:1-3 NRSV)
We find our confidence not by frantically searching for it, but by instead throwing ourselves into the service of love. It is
hard to like ourselves when we don't really respect ourselves. Nothing brings a greater sense of human fulfillment than
employing our gifts in the service of expanding love. The ways in which we do this are quite individualized and unique to
each of us. It may at times seem small, and it certainly doesn't have to be melodramatic. Yet as Frederick Buechner
said so beautifully, "The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world's deep hunger
MAKING JUDGMENTS WITHOUT BEING JUDGMENTAL, by Terry D. Cooper, Copyright 2006, InterVarsity Press.
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